Having studied Religion and Philosphy at University, I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytelling. In fact, from a very young age, I have always been trying to either write my own, or find ways of presenting other peoples’ (for better or worse – my efforts in the late 1970’s, aged 6 or 7, to put on a stage play version of Star Wars never materialised).
I knew that, in terms of societal control and religion, stories are always the bedrock. Stories about the good guys and the bad guys; the locals and the people from other parts or religions. Good stories need conflict, so what better way to keep a community or country all pointing in the same direction than to tell stories about them vs. everyone else?
But it wasn’t until I discovered Simon Synek’s little tome, ‘Start With Why,’ that I began to understand just why stories are so powerful. It’s all to do with how our brains are structured, specifically two key areas of the brain – the limbic system and the neo-cortex – and their one big difference.
The neo-cortex, the outer part of the brain, deals with self-control, planning, reasoning, morality and abstract thought. Most importantly, it deals with language. It’s the bit that chatters away incessantly with words, ceaselessly analysing everything that is happening to, and around, you as you go through the day.
The limbic system, which some assume to be the older part of the brain as it sits inside the neo-cortex, deals with emotions, motivations, and memory. It also deals with the choices that we make, and, crucially, does not have any capacity for language. This combination of factors is why story is so powerful.
By telling someone an interesting story, the analytical neo-cortex is bypassed, and we start talking directly to their limbic system. The neo-cortex shuts up for a while as we become engaged with the story. Brain scans have shown that when a person hears a story or watches a film, the same parts of the brain fire that would fire if they were experiencing the events for real. The limbic system processes all this information, and stores these ‘experiences’ as explicit memories.
This is why film/TV and stories are so engaging. As far as your poor limbic system is concerned, you might as well be there. You really are facing up to the Empire, being chased by a horde of the undead, or waving goodbye to your new, beloved, Extra-Terrestrial friend.
This is powerful stuff, and something quite hard for us to comprehend, as the lack of language capabilities in the limbic system makes it hard for us to articulate how something has an emotional impact on us. As Synek points out; try expressing to someone why you love your partner. It’s incredibly difficult to put those emotions into words.